Perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes in life is the limitedness of freedom. We are free, but we are limitedly free.
To some extent, we are free to choose but only from a limited set of options that had already been laid before us. At some point, however, we can transcend the boundaries of our un-freedom by choosing not to choose at all.
Whether we are truly free or not is still a subject of an ongoing philosophical debate. The world is divided between whether our existence is deterministic or probabilistic; whether it is the subatomic particles that shaped our consciousness, or it is consciousness that designed the atom.
But, whichever side we are on, we would all agree that what is inherent to all of us is our ability to choose, regardless of the nature and the consequence of our choices.
In this issue, we feature works that either seek or celebrate freedom.
As a kickoff, we have Almira Caryl Jane A. Calvo’s winning poem for the Balakbayi Poetry Writing Contest, “To recreate that which I had seen in a dream.” Calvo’s piece is reminiscent of a childhood arts class where one enjoys playing with colors, tracing images, and cutting and pasting pictures. But behind the verses is a resonating declaration of the freedom of the persona’s imagination to recreate into a new form an idea from a dream. Calvo skillfully expounded this theme with transforming imageries that progress from something as humanly perceptible as “paint[ing] the skies,” “canvas[ing] the seas,” and “fold[ing] flowers from thin sheets of rain” to something extraterrestrial like “weigh[ing] the Sun and Moon” and “count[ing] the number of stars through a cup.” The poem, however, does not pretend to demonstrate imagination’s ascendancy over human limitations. The last stanza wrapped up the poem with a sentient return to physical reality through the “clattering of labeled buttons,” perhaps of a computer keyboard, to bring to a swift completion the recreation of a dream before it fades in the memory like “a star gone nova.”
“Layers,” the runner-up-poem in Balakbayi by author Christine Joy G. Aban reminds us of the dichotomous nature of freedom, that liberation is oftentimes a grueling dissociation of the freed from its restrainer. The poem, which takes the form of a dialogue between a woman and a man, appeals to the socially-constructed precepts of many men for them to look past the physical layers of a woman’s body in order to see “the beautiful things she has inside—/ Inside, where soul and real beauty do reside.” Interestingly, the female persona is portrayed as someone who is still seeking affirmation from the male persona who is depicted as liberal and relatively enlightened, someone who seems to have already been freed from the conventional, regressive perception of a woman in this male-dominated world. Indeed, the poem delivers what the title promises—layers of womanhood, layers of perspectives, and layers of struggle for freedom from objectification.
This issue also features a one-act play set in the gateway of hell. Allan Ace Dignadice’s “Liar Goes to Hell” is a comic portrayal of the cunning character of Lucipher, and the vulnerability of human. Christian, the main character of the story repeatedly lied when Lucipher, who disguised himself as a good, old man, interrogated him. After a thorough questioning, Christian found himself lured into believing that he was about to enter heaven, when in fact he was already at the doorstep of hell. One of the play’s strengths is the wit of the conversations, which is hilariously entertaining and thought-provoking. The protagonist finds it absurd to be punished for acting on one’s will, and that even heeding the advice of religious people does not guarantee salvation. The lines, “No’ng lumapit sa bahay namin ang mga katekista, sinabi nilang gawin ko ito, gawin ko iyan upang masalba . . . Tapos sa huli, wala namang nangyari. Impiyerno pa rin ang bagsak ko!” imply a fundamental contradiction between the concepts of free will and punishment.
Freedom, however, is not always a consequence of the will. Sometimes, it is the will itself. It is not always a triumphant battle against facticity. Sometimes, it is the process of humbly accepting the natural order of things. Such is the nuance of the poem “Astral Demise” by Florence Diane D. Samson. The poem has a tone of certainty, which is consistent throughout, and parallels the human existence with the lifecycle of a star. It begins with a bold declaration that “We are all specks of light/ Flickering in the night sky,” and continues by reminding us of the reality that we are “Gradually deteriorating, burning out/ Slowly fading out of sight.” The last two lines, “Deadstars—/ We are all going to be,” solidify the poem’s tone by presenting to us both a figurative and literal reality of the stellar origin of the chemical elements that compose the physical human body.
There is, indeed, freedom in knowing one’s origin. It gives one a sense of wholeness. It is, however, not the case with the persona in the poem “It is the Call” by Julius Marc Taborete. The poem describes the experience of being deprived of the full encounter with one’s cultural identity to the point of being condescending to it. Having been “swept away in/ [his/her] Father’s proud façade,” the persona expressed resentment and said, “they have locked me in my own freedom,/ in the delusion I dwell.” The poem underscores the struggle of the persona with interracial roots, but has not experienced the peculiarities of both ancestries because of growing in a distant land.
Indeed, absence in one’s birthland leaves a void in one’s existence. Such is the essence of the short story “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” from Erwin Cabucos’s book The Beach Spirit and Other Stories. The longing for home is an emotion powerful enough to transport us freely into the memory lane, and powerful enough to keep us hopeful. In one of the narrator’s last lines, he said, “I wished I could gather Gideon and the guys again to go caroling. We would sing enthusiastically once more but, this time, I would not be asking for people’s money.” Such words are a testament that despite the significant change in geography, or in time, or even in social status, the home retains its warmth and spirit.
Another set of works, a poem and a short story, by Mubarak Tahir discusses a common, poignant issue of discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity. Central to both works is the determination of the protagonist to free himself from the shackles of society’s prejudice. In the symbol-laden poem “Makeup Kit,” the omniscient narrator recounts in a figurative manner the brutal persecution of a third-person character by someone the narrator interchangeably calls “Diyablo” or “Demonyo.” The use of metaphors eased the reading experience of a supposed morbid scene with Tahir’s creative juxtaposition of facial cosmetics, and blood and bruises: “Napalitan ang maitim na lipstick/ Ng pulang lip balm/ Na pumapatak sa labi . . ./ Kulay itim ang luhang dumadaloy;/ Natunaw ang mascara ng pilikmata . . .“
What seems to be a prequel to the poem is Tahir’s short story “Manika.” The story opens with an image of a young boy trying to tie around his waist a ribbon out of his blanket one early morning. Together with the image of a doll (manika), the ribbon (laso) is a recurring symbol that is also present in Tahir’s poem, making the two works complementary. Although both works have different intensities of conflict, both have redemptive resolutions: the story ended with the protagonist’s acceptance of oneself; and the poem, by the protagonist’s undaunted will to fight for the life he has so liberated.
In all of the featured works, we will see that in the midst of the multifaceted essence of freedom in the different aspects of human life, what matters is most is on how we harness the good in freedom.
Paul Randy P. Gumanao
Glan, Sarangani Province